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© Frank

interviews

Trickle Down Liberalism

by Chris Lodgson
February 11, 2021

This interview with Chris Lodgson, organizer in Sacramento, was conducted and condensed by franknews.

Chris | My name, Chris Lodgson. I'm originally from New York City. I was born and raised in Manhattan and Brooklyn. I spent 20 plus years in New York City and then I moved to Sacramento, about six years ago. I've been organizing for what feels like my whole life. Some of us choose to get into this work, and I love and respect those who do, and some of us don't really have a choice based on how we were brought up. 

Growing up in Manhattan and Brooklyn in the late 80s and early 90s, you were connected to activism, organizing, and social justice work as a way of survival. 

frank | A lot of your organizing centers around reparations.

I had the privilege and pleasure to be a part of the groups that helped get our state's first reparations task force passed through AB-3121. I've been very fortunate to work with folks like Dr. Sandy Darity, probably the foremost reparations scholar. He has helped me understand how reparations is really the only pure solution to the plight of African Americans. I am also campaign lead for Fix HR40, the only organized campaign to help improve the only reparations legislation in Congress. HR40 has been sitting in Congress in some way, or some facet for 30 years.

Reparations is critical to us. The lack of reparations is why the Black and white wealth gap has continued for many many years. Reparations is the only way to fix that. There are a bunch of universal programs that we think would be awesome. Raising the minimum wage, great. Canceling student loan debt, great. However, ultimately, none of that is going to end the racial wealth gap.

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With that in mind, what does an effective anti-poverty movement look like to you? 

First of all, those interested in the anti-poverty movements have to accept reparations as a part of an efficient, effective anti-poverty program. This is not something that's outside of or the extreme of an anti-poverty movement. 

If you look back to Johnson in the 1960s, in the process of debuting some of his anti-poverty policies, he reintroduced affirmative action specifically for Black Americans who descend from U.S. slavery, as a part of an effective anti-poverty framework. 

In his speech at Howard, he talks about how in the post-war period, in the 60s, the conditions of almost every group improved, except for Black folks who descended from slavery. Why? He said that this has to be because of the legacy of slavery. He said that we need to take some affirmative action. That, of course, is a fraction of what we needed to do. We needed a reparations program. We needed it then and we need it now. But, we can look to Johnson talking about specifically targeting Black Americans who descend from US slavery as part of the history of anti-poverty movements. 

So, to answer your question, an effective anti-poverty movement today is one that embraces reparations. It is one that is not scared by policy solutions that are race-specific or lineage-specific or ethnicity-specific.

You don't have an effective anti-poverty movement if Black folks are still at the bottom. There's no anti-poverty movement without us.

We have to do this together, but that doesn't mean that our specific interests and our specific needs go unmet. 

What push back do you get on race-specific or lineage-specific policies? 

We hear that reparations is reverse racism. We hear that you can't fight racism with racism. We hear the old tropes about how this is America, you can and should lift yourself up by your bootstraps. If you haven't succeeded, you don't work hard enough or you're not educated enough. You are telling me that an entire community is disadvantaged because of something that each and every single person was doing? No. 

We also hear what I call the “all lives policies” or “trickle-down liberalism.”

It is this idea that if we do something for everybody, then by osmosis or by accident, you all are going to do better too. But there is no evidence for that. In fact, the evidence says that the opposite. You can actually hurt Black people by doing things like canceling all student debt. Trust me, I know there's a lot of people who want that, but less than 20% of Black Americans who descend from slavery go to college and have college debt. In effect, you end up widening the wealth gap.  I want to see that these things happen, but they have to happen at the same time as a reparations program or after a reparations program. 

Why do you think Democrats, the party that has embraced “anti-racism”, have failed to implement targeted economic proposals to their platform?

I think that the Democratic party is influenced and managed and run by people who subscribe to a lot of the same arguments the Republicans do. They believe in the “pull yourself up by your bootstrap” argument and the “rising tide lifts all boats” argument. These are common ideals within the Democratic party, even if you look to the progressive left. 

I mean, universal policies were Bernie's whole thing. I think that Bernie would have had a better chance, and the progressive wing would have had a better chance, if he could say the words, "Black people." Not “Black and brown people.” Not “people of color.” And I know that for a fact because I was organizing during the campaign. Most Black folks, my age, were not comfortable with Joe Biden. A lot of us were children in the 90s and saw what that crime bill did to us then, and what it is still doing to us now. A lot of us had to go live with our grandmothers and aunts because somebody was in jail or somebody's mom was on crack or because the neighborhood was too dangerous. That is scarring. 

If the progressive wing of the Democratic party, if Bernie, could address Black folks specifically and target Black folks through policies, I think they would be more successful. 

I can't speak for the rest of the party as to why they don't address those policies, but I would guess that it is because it is not always in their political benefit to target Black folks. Particularly in a political system rigged by redistricting, gerrymandering, and the influence of money in politics, it is not in the interest of the Democrats to fight for Black people.  

What is echoed through our interviews this month is this sense that Democrats don’t speak to the deep needs of the working class – whether that's Black working class or working class more broadly – because they don't see them as essential constituencies to win. Do you think that's true?

I think it's true, but I think there's something else underneath that. When it comes to Black folks, specifically Black folks that have descended from U.S. slavery, our history of who we are in this country makes us a unique group. It makes it more difficult for Democrats to decide to do something specifically on our behalf. 

Look at last summer. For a couple of months, it looked like we were about to take some important steps within the Democratic party. I was out there last summer. I took the tear gas and the flash grenades. I got sick with COVID. For a minute it felt like we may actually do something, but what actually did we do? I would argue that if the campaign centered more around Black folks who descened from U.S. slavery, there would have had more success legislatively. 

What other factors do you think were important to the outcomes, or lack of outcomes from summer 2020? Do you think an economic message was put to the forefront?  

Before I even go into it, I do want to give a shout out to the organizers and activists on the ground who took the tragedies that we saw, and got busy locally, statewide, and nationally.

But, I am disappointed that not more came from the energy we saw. I think part of that lies with the way that the media covered it. I think the last few months showed us that whatever you want to hear, you can find media that feeds you that opinion. That is why so many people think Donald Trump actually won the election and ran into the Capitol ready to kill people. I definitely think the organization of our media, social media, and social media influencers diluted some of the moment.

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There is also the criticism that the only policy action that you can take from the protests is to defund the police. And this was coming from all sides. When I learned about defunding the police, I learned about it through a framework called invest-divest, back in 2016, led by Movement for Black Lives. And there was some success there, I actually created a tracker to track all George Floyd related legislation that divested in "public safety" and invested into community programs.

But, in the circles that I ran in, there was doubt about whether defunding the police was the solution. So there was some disorganization, some confusion, and some lack of faith in that big, single policy outcome. In my circles, in particular, we were saying we need reparations and we need a comprehensive reparations program, and we need it now. That is the solution. And it's better than saying defund the police and better than saying invest divest even, even though most of us support those movements as well.  

It’s important for white liberals to realize their efforts to help may have paternalistic tendencies. Whether that's what you called “trickle-down liberalism”, or not being willing to have a nuanced discussion about the policies coming out of BLM, I don’t know.

Even with the most well-intentioned, left-leaning white person, we have to acknowledge that this goes back a long time. Me and you go back a long time. We have been in this for over 400 years. We are going to have to figure this thing out. We are going to have to figure out how to live together.

A lot of people in my community see the left and right as two sides of the same coin. As Malcolm X described it, the wolf and the fox. He said the left is the fox and the right is the wolf. He said that he had more respect for the wolf because the wolf will show you his teeth, whereas the fox will pretend to be your friend before he eats you.

Black folks weren't surprised about what we saw at the Capitol. We’re used to white people getting violent. Very used to that. I don't think it’s your average white person who is looking for AOC in the bathroom or for Nancy Pelosi, but that is a part of the white community.

So we're going to have to figure this out. I don't know what it is to be white, but I don't necessarily envy the position that a lot of white folks, who are well-meaning and who want to do good, are in. 

Like you said, some choose to get in this fight, some are born into it. How do organizers think about changing participation and organizing around a working-class, or a Black working-class identity? 

That's right. The folks who are the most impacted tend to participate the least in politics. But, I want to expand what we think about when we think of participation. I'm not just talking about voting, I'm talking about getting involved, organizing locally, standing up for yourself, and standing up for your people.

In New York, we have what we used to call a johnny pump. One of those open fire pumps with kids playing in the water. We did that a lot in the summertime. When the police show up, tell you to turn the water off, call y'all monkeys and animals, and say "I'm only here to lock you up, to me, politics looks like standing up for yourself and your community. Politics looks like saying, “No, I'm not going to let you talk to us like that. I'm not gonna let you treat us like that”.

I am talking from personal experience, this is something that really happened to me. That is politics. That is participation. 

When the landlord abandoned your building so there is no gas, no electricity, no extermination, no trash being picked up, political participation looks like the kids in the building collecting $5 to $10 from everybody in the building and calling the gas company to come put heat on.

This, again, is my personal experience. This is real life. It's not back in the 70s, this is in the early 2000s. That's political.

And this is coming from New Yorkers. New York is run by Democrats. California is run by Democrats. The situations in these places are horrible, horrible, horrible, horrible.

Of course, we have a hard time buying into the Republicans are so bad or the Democrats are so bad argument because we live horribly under both.

And that is the point. That keeps us in the bottom caste. We are not supposed to do any better. Society was designed to do that and now, it is self-reinforcing. The system works without much effort. It doesn't take a maniacal conspiracy and people plotting behind closed doors to hurt us, that was already done. Now it just works. It's very efficient, it's very effective, and that's what we're up against.

The problem is, to make a real change, there has to be a high level of coordinated politics. There needs to be strategic voting. There needs to be community organizing on a wider scale. From one block to the next, we have to see each other as the same community. And I think we can be unified around the fact that we descend from U.S. slavery.

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And I feel like I have to say this: if we don't achieve a reparations program in the next decade, there are going to be a lot fewer people like me in this country. It's not like we have to exist as a people. Your existence as a people is a function of whether or not you can survive. When's the last time you saw an aboriginal Australian? When's the last time you saw an aboriginal Canadian? Keep it real, when is the last time you saw a Native American? 

I'm a firm believer that if we don't achieve a reparations program soon, we may pass a point of no return. As a people, we were already on the road to zero wealth in 2018. That's before COVID did its worst. Here in the city of Sacramento, one-third of all Black folks have zero wealth. If you add up the wealth of the bottom half of Black America, the total is less than $1.

I don't mean to sound like an alarmist, but I kind of have to say that we're on fire. It's not just a house that's on fire, the people inside it are too. Reparations is the solution. It's just one of many, but without it, nothing else works.